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In the evolution debate, can't we keep an open mind? A biochemist says science has good reasons for choosing evolution, but gosh, both sides should get a grip

Folks, chill out on the evolution vs. intelligent design fight. Evolution isn't about who did it, it's about what happened.

Like it or not, although scientific experimentation establishes facts and extends our knowledge, good scientists recognize that in the end, much is indeterminate; the next experiment may send us off onto an entirely new road that we never knew existed. And so, unlike belief -- which is constant -- a theory can evolve to encompass new insights into the world around us.

A good scientist isn't locked into a specific reading of his or her theory; a good scientist lets the facts determine how the theory needs to change in light of new information, new knowledge, new wisdom.

I am not religious, but I usually read the "God Squad" column that appears in Saturday's News. And so I read a recent column on this debate. Obviously, I'm less an expert on God than are Marc and Tom (the God Squad), but I am a scientist, so in that respect I am somewhat more qualified to discuss the issues surrounding the recurring debate about the theory of evolution than they are.

As a professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo who does a lot of work with and thinks about how organisms work, I am constantly amazed that they do work, and work so well. They work better than anything that humans have designed or could design.

Now, about theories in general, and the theory of evolution in particular. It's accurate to argue that a theory may or may not be true. That's why an idea or suggestion about how things work or how they came to work the way they do is different from explicit knowledge -- an actual video, if you will -- about the natural behavior under consideration.

Einstein's theory of relativity is like that. It is a blueprint of possibility but not the actual building constructed from the blueprint. However, that theory -- any theory -- is a blueprint for how we can go about doing experiments to collect the facts that may -- or may not -- indicate that the blueprint has it about right.

And here's where some go a bit astray about theories and the science that goes about seeing if they hold water: Scientists don't take for granted that a theory is a fact; they know that any given theory is "good" only as long as experiments designed to test the theory come out as the theory would predict.

And here's the punch line: Even if the results fit the theory exactly, the theory remains a theory because maybe the results of the next set of experiments won't exactly match the theory's predictions.

> Natural selection

Now about the theory of evolution. Taken in its simplest form -- which encompasses the controversy about it -- Darwin's idea said that the plants and animals living in the mid-19th century represented those that survived a process that he thought of as survival of the fittest, what he called natural selection.

He saw variations in species and theorized that one variation -- and all variations are "natural" -- made birds with long beaks better able to forage for food than the same species of bird with short beaks. As a result, the long-beaked birds got more food and had more babies that lived longer and had more babies.

You get the picture: Darwin saw a lot more birds with long beaks than short, and natural selection was his theory why.

If we thought about this like scientists, then we would ask: OK, the bird story that Darwin told fits his theory, but does the theory stand up to the data collected since then? The answer to that question is simple: yes.

Does this "prove" the theory of evolution? No. As I explained, you can never prove a theory. We can no more "prove" Einstein's theory of relativity than we can "prove" Darwin's theory of evolution. Funny thing, I don't hear too much argument in the press or the statehouses about Einstein and his theory and the teaching of it in our public schools. I think you readers should ask yourselves why this is so.

Now, if we fast-forward to the 21st century and fold into the mix our new understanding about the structure and function of DNA -- about genes -- we can provide insight into the aspect of Darwin's theory that he had no way of conceptualizing. That's the origin of slow variations -- long vs. short. And here we come to the argument against Darwin put forward by the adherents of intelligent design.

They argue that you couldn't possibly put a cell together step-by-step, as slow variation would have it; a cell had to have been assembled at one time, like a watch is assembled by a watchmaker. Well that short beak didn't become long overnight, either, and that's the misconception held by most non-scientists about variation and evolution.

> Yearly flu shots

The flu virus is a good example of this process. I got vaccinated last fall and made it through the winter with only a cold or two. So why do I have to get vaccinated again this fall? Well, the vaccine knocked off most of those viruses that got passed around last year. But, like it or not, there were a few virus bugs whose DNA was oh-so-slightly different and so weren't defended against.

There weren't many of those "mutants" -- variants -- so they didn't cause a lot of illness, but since they had no competition from the "normal," targeted virus, they grew pretty well, and now they're ready to go. What do you know? They were "naturally selected."

And then there are all of those staph germs in the hospitals that grow resistant to the drugs normally used to control them. They didn't "become" resistant; the DNA of some bugs changed, leading to a variation in the bug (like a long beak) that conferred to that variant resistance to the drug.

With all of the other "normal" guys getting knocked off by the drug, the mutant had little competition, and so here it is, the winner by "natural selection."

I could go on and on with stories about viruses, bacteria, plants, insects and animals. It's all about variation and natural selection, over and over again. In other words, in experiment after experiment, the results always lined up with the theory of evolution.

But back to the watchmaker analogy; here's where the conflict with one's reading of the Bible and one's comfort level with evolution can get serious. I agree: If life on Earth started 6,000 or so years ago, then variation and natural selection doesn't make it. But if life on Earth started 4 billion years ago, then there has been plenty of time to put a watch together, even accounting for a few false tries.

Your liver cells didn't just appear overnight, folks. Even the bacteria in your mouth probably took about a billion years to get going, and they don't have a tenth of the complexity of that liver cell of yours.

There were a lot of steps -- variations -- between the first cell (and that's pushing the definition of cell, let me tell you) and even the first bacterium as we know it today; and then a bunch of variations to get to, say, a yeast cell (one that makes bread rise); and then to a plant cell. . . . You get the picture.

The fact is, we pretty well know how this can happen, this evolutionary change in the DNA that leads to variation in form and function. Many scientists do this in the lab every day in a controlled fashion. And, as I've noted, this evolution of variants is an ongoing process in our world, a process that, in the end, will even change who we are.

> Science is flexible

A final word: A theory doesn't win, since that implies that at some point it reaches some determinate end-point. Science isn't like that. No, a reasoned examination of experimental data will continue to "fit" the theory of evolution, I am sure, and, to the extent that some data do not conform to the theory as it's proposed, then the theory will need to be adjusted appropriately. Science is like that.

Since as far as I know there have been no experiments designed and completed to test some prediction that follows from intelligent design, as a theory it can't really compete with evolution. Put another way, intelligent design appears to me to reflect a belief that Darwin was wrong rather than providing a testable blueprint for how intelligent design is correct. Anyone has the right to believe that intelligent design is the way it happened, but don't mix this belief with science.

Let me close with a theory. I hypothesize that a lot of you believe that God in all religious forms is the designer or creator of the biosphere as we know it. I further posit that some of you believe that the teaching of evolution -- not surprisingly -- is in conflict with this belief and believe that the state shouldn't support its teaching in the public schools. In other words, you see evolution as a competing belief.

However, I hypothesize that you recognize that the Constitution prohibits mixing religion and government, so you can't force the issue of science vs. God. So I hypothesize that intelligent design is the answer, presenting what is a euphemism for a belief in the creator as a competing scientific "theory" so that the belief that God created what is here today can find a place at the political table.

You know, I don't see God as competing with evolution, since I can't do an experiment that eliminates the possibility that God was responsible for the variant flu virus that we will all need to be vaccinated against in November.

Dr. Dan Kosman, a biochemist at the University at Buffalo, lives in Amherst.

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